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Bringing Sketchnoting to the B-Mitzvah Classroom

The first time Steve Silbert sketchnoted one of my divrei Torah, I was enthralled. The things he chose to highlight showed me what he found interesting in what I had written. His images uplifted my ideas in a new way. His sketchnote, rooted in my d’var Torah, was also its own piece of Torah creativity. That first sketchnote was my introduction to the spiritual technology of Visual Torah, now one of the tools Bayit offers for building Jewish life and practice. 

In 2019 Steve came to Bayit’s rabbinic innovation retreat to teach the art and spiritual practice of Jewish sketchnoting to a denominationally diverse group of rabbis, most of whom insisted that we couldn’t draw. Steve taught us that sketchnoting is about ideas, not art, and that anyone can do it: even us. By the end of that session, all of us had taken a crack at sketchnoting… and I had a vision of using sketchnoting to uplift my Hebrew school teaching. This year, I invited Steve to join my b-mitzvah class remotely, to teach the basics of sketchnoting to my students.

  1. Educating the Educator

The first step in bringing sketchnoting and Visual Torah to my b-mitzvah classroom was the workshop that Steve led at Bayit’s rabbinic innovation retreat. Because I had that experience of learning to use sketchnoting myself, and also because I’d spent a year watching Steve create Visual Torah for a full cycle of parshanut blog posts for Builders Blog, I had some understanding of sketchnoting and Visual Torah as both spiritual practice and learning tool. 

For anyone else who wants to bring Steve and this practice into your Hebrew school classrooms, I would strongly recommend some one-on-one sketchnoting learning with Steve first. Especially if he’s in the room remotely / via videoconference (as was the case here), it’s important that he have a hands-on partner in the room who understands sketchnoting both spiritually and pedagogically.

 

  1. The Runway

The week before his visit, I asked my students and their parents to reread the Shema and V’ahavta and to make a list of five things in that prayer that they thought were important.  

Each Monday I email my b-mitzvah parents to let them know what we’ll be learning that day. On the day when Steve was going to visit our class, I explained to parents that a digital visitor would be introducing sketchnoting, a spiritual technology designed to give their kids a new way of engaging with Torah and a new way of engraving their learning on their minds and hearts. 

 

  1. The Classroom Visit

My students seemed bemused at having a guest teacher appear on my computer, but they got used to it quickly, and treated Steve as though he were sitting at our table. 

First Steve took us through a visual vocabulary exercise. Each student had a pad of Post-It notes and a Sharpie marker. “Draw what comes to mind when I say the word ‘idea,’” he told us. “Don’t overthink it, you have ten seconds, go.” Most of us drew lightbulbs. One person drew a thought bubble. (Almost everyone chooses one of those two images for that word, Steve told us.)

“Okay, now draw ‘house.’” We drew little boxes with triangular roofs and maybe a door and a window. “Draw ‘love.’” We drew hearts. Each time we tore off our post-it notes and stuck them to the whiteboard, we noticed that we had drawn variations on the same theme. Though none of us consider ourselves artists, we share some basic visual vocabulary. We have simple pictographs in mind for basic words — door, hat, flower — and we can convey those in images. 

Then Steve gave us a set of Jewish prompts: mezuzah, Torah, hamentaschen, Ten Commandments, Shabbat candles. It turns out that we have shared visual vocabulary there too. 

And then we moved into the Shema and V’ahavta. We talked through the lists of five things that each student had considered “core” in that prayer. Some ideas were common across everyone’s list and others were more individual. 

Still working with post-its, we took a crack at drawing each of the five items on our lists. And then we placed them on a page, with the shema in the center and the five ideas circling around it like spokes on a wheel. Because we were working with post-it notes, we could rearrange our items at will.

By the end of the class, each student had a draft of a sketchnote exploring the core ideas of the Shema and V’ahavta.

 

  1. Re-Inscribing

A few weeks later, when we returned from winter break, we re-inscribed our sketchnote learning. I took the students through the basic visual vocabulary and basic Jewish visual vocabulary exercises again, to remind them that this is something they can do. 

Then we engaged in the same sort of exercise with the blessings before and after an aliyah of Torah. Questions that came up included: how might we depict God on a Post-It note? How about chosenness? “From among” all peoples or “along with” all peoples? And then each student arranged their Post-It notes to create a sketchnote of that prayer. 

 

  1. Did it “work”? (Yes.)

The sketchnoting lesson with Steve kept my students active and engaged. In that sense it was an immediate success. 

A few weeks later, I asked students what had stayed with them about studying the Torah blessings. They volunteered the images they had drawn. Having put pen to Post-it, they retained the core ideas they had depicted.

Studies have shown that writing or drawing something by hand inscribes it on the brain in a different way than reading it or even typing it. Sketchnoting these prayers gave my students an opportunity to engage using a different part of the brain than usual. And translating these prayers into images and rendering them with their own pens gave my students a different sense of ownership than just learning to read or sing them. (As one student said, “now that I put it on a Post-It, it’ll really ‘stick’ with me!” And that has turned out to be true.)

Based on the success of these experiments, I have other sketchnoting plans. We’ll sketchnote mitzvot, spiritual practices, the b-mitzvah journey. Based on what I saw in my classroom, I’m certain that Visual Torah and sketchnoting deepened my students’ engagement with the tradition. I can’t measure “how much” it impacted them, but I can see that it did.  I’m excited to see what will flow next from their pens.

 

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat with Steve Silbert.

Happy Chanukah from the Builders at Bayit!

Chag urim sameach

#BeALight this Chanukah as we
move past the solstice and
we rededicate our hearts.

poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
illustration by Steve Silbert

#MenschUp with Ushpizin

What qualities do you want to bring into your sukkah this year?

Here’s a download that features a classical set of Jewish values: lovingkindness, boundaries, balance, perseverance, humility, rootedness, nobility. (You might recognize those seven qualities as the “seven lower sefirot,” the qualities we share with our Creator that we cultivate each year during the Counting of the Omer.)

Print this on cardstock — hang the whole poster — cut it into cards and hang them around your sukkah — cut it into cards and have them on your table to spark discussion… the schach‘s the limit! Include these seven qualities among the ushpizin (holy guests) you invite into your sukkah this year.

We’re sharing this file as part of #MenschUp, a project aimed at promoting healthy (non-toxic) masculinity. As we build our sukkot, let’s build with Jewish values in mind. Download the file here on google drive:

Sukkot Downloads [Google drive]

There’s also a “Love Shack” downloadable flyer in that folder as well, and we’ll be adding more downloadable Sukkot resources to that google drive folder, so check back often!

Also, check out Steve Silbert’s Visual Torah artwork on RedBubble, including a poster for Sukkot (arising out of the book of Kohelet / Ecclesiastes) and a poster for Simchat Torah.

May our building be for the sake of heaven, and may the blessings of Sukkot flow into and through us all!

 

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Mission Statement: Listen. Remember. Connect. Build.

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

In Ha’azinu, Moses gives his final oration. At the beginning of his story he called himself a person of uncircumcised lips or impeded speech, (Ex. 6:30) but here he’s eloquent, pouring forth an impassioned mission statement for the children of Israel. Ever since the burning bush, Moses has been a figure of transcendence. He speaks face-to-face with God, he goes up to the mountaintop… In this final speech, his transcendence feels even more palpable, maybe because he knows he’s about to die. And he begins (Deut: 32:1) by connecting up to heaven. 

But leading the people has always required both connection with heaven, and rootedness on earth. Which is maybe why Moses has always had a partner. When Moses said he couldn’t go to Pharaoh because he can’t speak to people, God promised that Aaron would speak for him. And when Moses was too fiery, Aaron spoke to the people safely. Aaron was his connector, keeping him grounded. This time, it’s Joshua who is standing by his side. (Deut. 32:44)  Joshua is his new connector, his new “grounding,” balancing Moses’ heavenly energy with some earth.

Given that, it’s interesting that Moses doesn’t conclude his speech with an introduction of Joshua as the people’s new leader. That would have put the people’s focus on the person at the helm — first Moses, who’s in the process of stepping down; then Joshua, who’s in the process of stepping up — rather than on the message that Moses wants to convey. Moses wants to give over a mission statement for b’nei Yisrael (the children of Israel; the community that together wrestles with the Holy; our spiritual ancestors in Torah “back then;” all of us listening today.)

Moses says:

“Take all of this to heart. Teach it to your generations. This is not a trifling thing: it is your very life!” (Deut. 32:4647

Moses knows that his time is over. And Joshua’s time too will be temporary. Every person who serves as a leader is necessarily temporary. In this final speech, he aims to teach the people that this isn’t about us, the leaders who are privileged to serve the community. It’s not about me or him (or her or them!) or whoever comes after. This is about our core mission as human beings. This is about who we are and what we’re here for. Our mission as b’nei Yisrael is to hear, to remember, to be in relationship with the Holy, and to build mindfully from that place. 

Each of us is part of the chain of generations, the chain of tradition and transmission from our ancestors to our descendants (whether literal or metaphorical). In our place and time, each of us has building work to do: building on what came before us, and leaving good foundations for what will come next. But none of us is permanent. What’s permanent, says Moses in this week’s Torah portion, is God; heaven; earth; the whole of which each of us is a part. What’s permanent is the “Us”-ness that will continue after each of us is gone, and the mission we take on together.

Torah tells us that “God spoke to Moses in his bones on that day.” (Deut. 32:48) That verse is usually translated “on that very day,” but the use of the word עצם is striking. It can connote our bones, our essence, who we most truly are. Moses feels in his very bones that he is done. He feels in his bones that it’s time for a transition, and he consciously transfers leadership to Joshua — while making sure to focus not on them as individuals (no matter how extraordinary), but instead to focus on mission. Our mission is listening. Remembering. Relationship. Building.

May we feel that mission in our very bones… and may that somatic awareness inspire us to listen, to remember, to connect with each other and with God, and from there, to build.

By Rabbi Bella Bogart and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Keystones: Great for Buildings, But Not for Relationships

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

Vayeilech continues Moses’ final speech to the children of Israel, encamped on the banks of the Jordan, preparing to enter the Land of Promise. Three times over the course of the parsha, Torah instructs us to share this teaching (this whole teaching) with the community (the whole community): 

“Then Moses wrote down this Teaching… and instructed them as follows:… you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people — men, women, and the strangers in your community — that they may hear…” (Deut. 31:9-12)

“Write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths…” (Deut. 21:19)

“Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel.” (Deut. 31:30)

Reading these words as this year of building Torah draws to a close, I find two lessons — and one warning! — for us as builders of the Jewish future: 

  • Read the whole plan

The Jewish mystical tradition regards Torah as a blueprint for all of creation. That poetic image may or may not resonate with us today. But even on a pshat (surface) level, Torah contains all kinds of injunctions about how to live and how to treat each other. Rules like, “remember the day of Shabbat and keep it holy,” or “when you are reaping the harvest of your fields, don’t go all the way to the corners: leave food there for those who need to glean,” or “justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Or, in R’ Mike Moskowitz’ translation, “Resist so that you may persist.”) 

These are Torah’s building instructions for us.  They’re the blueprint for building an ethical and spiritually conscious society. And in this week’s parsha, Torah is reminding us that we need to read (and hear) all of them. We may read these instructions through the lenses of Talmud and commentaries. (Indeed, Jews rarely read Torah on its own.) We may read these instructions through a mystical lens, or a poetic lens. But we need to keep reading them, and we need to read all of them — even the ones that may require major reinterpretation to feel live today.

If we’re building a house, we need to look at all of the blueprints: for the foundation and the plumbing, the electrical system and the walls. If we were to ignore the HVAC blueprint, for instance, we’d make some critical errors that would make the house impossible to heat or cool. Assuming that our architect is trustworthy, we need to pay attention to the whole plan. (If our architect isn’t trustworthy, we have a different problem.) Torah teaches that Moshe recited the words of this poem (meaning the Torah itself) “to the very end.” Be attentive to the whole plan.

  • Empower everyone to build

When there’s an intention to build together, we need to make sure that everyone is clear on the building plan. We can’t leave anyone out. “Gather the people — men, women, and the strangers in your community,” says Torah. (Today we might regard “men [and] women” as shorthand for “the whole range of genders and gender expressions.”) And don’t leave out the strangers in the community, the outsiders, the immigrants, the refugees. Or maybe we understand “strangers” in a less literal way, as those already in community who aren’t yet on board with the building plan.

The work of building the Jewish future requires all of us. All genders and gender expressions. The insiders and those who feel like outsiders. The locals and the immigrants. A vibrant and meaningful Jewish future can’t be built only by men, or only by white people, or only by Israelis (or Americans), or only by rabbis. On the contrary: this building work belongs to all of us. Only when all of us are present, and all of us are appreciated for our differences and our unique gifts, and all of us are uplifted into service, can we fullfil the blueprint of a world redeemed. 

It’s not enough to merely write down “this poem” (the Torah, the blueprint, the building plan) — we need to “put it in [our] mouths.” Everyone needs to be able to take ownership of a piece of the building plan, to speak it in their own words, to articulate for themselves why this building work matters. Even as Torah shows us a top-down hierarchy (God speaks to Moshe who speaks to us), it’s instructing us to pursue empowerment and democratization. It’s instructing us to put the words of the building plan in everyone’s mouths, not just the general contractor’s.

  • Be careful…

God says to Moses, “When you die, the people will go astray.” (Deut. 31:16) This may be a warning about excessive verticality. It’s a warning about the dangers of conflating a leader — no matter how extraordinary — with the work they’re leading the community in doing. Every build team needs a leader, to dream and plan, manage and inspire. But if the members of the build team abdicate responsibility, that’s not healthy. Then — to borrow a different architectural metaphor — the leader becomes the keystone, and without them the arch will crumble.

We need to be careful about not vesting too much power in the hands of those who lead. That’s not healthy for leaders, and it’s not healthy for the community, either. Better to share leadership, share responsibility, and share vision with everyone. Empower builders to take up their tools together.  When we engage with the whole plan, from bottom to top — and when we each take ownership of the unique building that only we can do (the unique pearl of Torah that only we can teach) — then we’ll be able to build a world of justice and joy, a land of promise wherever we are.

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Standing Together for What Matters

 

Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Everyone Needs a Break

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, begins with a set of instructions for when we enter the Land of Promise. Torah tells us to take our first fruits to a special place, tell a ritualized story, articulate gratitude for where we are, and enjoy the bounty of the harvest. In this ancient first-fruits ritual, I find a set of four instructions for us as builders. 

  • Take first fruits

In the Biblical paradigm, this meant the literal first fruits of the season’s harvest. Today when few of us farm (or even garden!), the first fruits are likely to be metaphorical. Maybe they’re the lessons we learned from the most recent round of building. Maybe they’re signs that we’ve completed a first step and it’s time to pause and prepare for whatever comes next. What are the fruits of your building labors this year? What have you built? Of what can you feel proud?

  • Tell a story 

Torah instructs us to go before the priest in the place where God has chosen to establish God’s name. For us, this might mean connecting with someone who’s operating in a leadership role right now. Or it might mean seeking out a trusted friend who can listen with keen attention and open heart. One way or another, go someplace that is meaningful, with someone who can listen. And then, Torah says, tell the story that begins “My father was a wandering Aramean…” 

In Torah’s context, this is the story that leads to our people’s enslavement in Egypt. From that going-down flows a rising-up: that descent leads to our liberation, and to the next chapter of our communal narrative as a free people in relationship with the Holy. What might it mean for you, as a builder, to tell the story of where you came from and how you got to where you are? Can you see your descents as being for the sake of ascent, for the sake of growth and potential?

  • Articulate gratitude

Telling the story leads to bowing in gratitude before God. This may be the most useful tool in this week’s toolbox: gratitude. When we cultivate a mindset (and heart-set) of gratitude, then everything we encounter can become an opportunity to say thank You. And it’s not enough just to feel it: we have to speak it. Much like the way atonement isn’t considered real unless we speak our missteps aloud (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1), gratitude has to be named and spoken.

  • Celebrate 

Once we’ve identified the fruits of our labors, told our story, and spoken gratitude aloud, then we can join — in Torah’s paradigm, “with the Levite and with the stranger in your midst” (Deut. 26:11) — in celebration. Celebration is meant to be communal. We share our abundance with the Levite (those who have dedicated their lives to service) and with the stranger. We build the Jewish future not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of those whom we don’t yet know.

These ancient instructions form the outline of the first-fruits ritual once followed in the Land of Promise and then at the Temple when it stood. I like to think that wherever we are can be a Land of Promise, if only we open ourselves to divine presence, if only we build in an upright and ethical way. Wherever we are can be holy ground. Wherever we are, that’s where we build. 

As we prepare for the end of the Jewish year, what is the building work we can lift up before God as we tell the story of how we came to be who and where we are? Let’s prime the pump of gratitude for all that we have, and all that we’ve been blessed to participate in building… and let’s celebrate as we prepare to take up our tools again in the new year to come.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Every Building Needs a Fence 

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

In Ki Tetze, Torah says, “When you build a new house, make a railing for your upper story, so that blood-guilt not be held against your house should somebody fall from it.” (Deut. 22:8) What a powerful building instruction: whatever kinds of structures we build, we must prioritize safety.

The Hasidic rebbe known as the Maggid of Mezrich reads this as commentary on the psycho-spiritual process of building new interpretations of Torah. In his volume Ohr Torah he writes, “This [the verse about the railing] refers to one offering a new interpretation of Torah. Make a railing for your upper story…As it is, the upper story is on you, referring to the swelling of your pride at this new teaching. Do not let your head get turned by pride! Even though this is a bit of Torah that no ear has ever heard, it comes not from you, but from G!d.” 

In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert offers similar insight into the creative process. Her main point is the provocative notion that ideas are alive. She’s not being metaphorical: she means that ideas are literally living beings, though not made of physical material substance. This is not the way modern Western society usually thinks about the creative process! 

Rather than imagining that ideas are generated by extraordinary people (“geniuses”), Gilbert believes that ordinary people are approached by living ideas seeking a partner who will help them become manifest in the world. She roots this in the original meaning of the word “genius.” That word’s original usage held not that a particular person is a genius, but rather that a person has a genius. The term comes from the Arabic word djinn (usually rendered in English as “genie”). In this formulation, a genius is like a “muse” — a living idea that comes to a human being, wanting a partner to bring it into the world. 

Why might a modern builder choose Gilbert’s paradigm? One answer is that her outlook on building keeps the ego in check, much like the Maggid of Mezrich’s notion that an idea “comes not from you, but from G!d.” If the idea is not yours exclusively or a product of your genius but an idea you’ve partnered-with to help it enter the world, or an idea that comes from G!d, then it’s a lot easier to avoid the pitfall of excessive ego and pride.

In Big Magic, Gilbert writes, “But do not let your ego totally run the show, or it will shut down the show. Your ego is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master — because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward…’” She sounds a lot like Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi z”l, who often said, “Ego is a great manager and a lousy boss.”

Whatever we build — whether a house, a poem, or a community — we need to remember that our ideas don’t come from us, but rather move through us. We are but partners in bringing new structures into the world. This type of “fence for our roofs” keeps our building work, and the structures we build, safe for all.

By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Building Communal Resistance for Elul

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

Resist so that you may exist. This is the charge that the Torah provides (Deuteronomy 16:20) as an introduction to communal living in the Land of Israel. The statutes that follow demand that we end apathy towards injustice. We must mobilize a resistance in which those with societal privilege feel as freighted by maltreatment in the world as those who suffer indignity directly.

G-d’s design for building a holier world has an interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive prerequisite. According to R’ Yossi HaGalili, the Torah lists categories of military deferment – those who built a new house, planted a vineyard or got betrothed, who might be distracted because they haven’t yet finished those pursuits – only to provide cover for the one true military exemption: one who is fearful and faint hearted (Deuteronomy 20:8). The Talmud re-contextualizes this fear as someone afraid of their transgressions (Sotah 44a [המתיירא מעבירות שבידו]).

Being concerned about one’s sins is not a bad thing: not being afraid of them is a much greater cause of concern. Why, then, should tradition disqualify someone from participating in this resistance on account of a level of spiritual consciousness?

The Torah’s word for fear here (“הירא”) is found in only one other verse in the Torah. After Moses declares that the plague of hail is coming, the verse states: “Whoever among the servants of Pharaoh feared the word of Hashem chased his servants and his livestock into the houses” (Exodus 9:20). This inward-focused fear is limited to retribution for sin, a concern for the safety of oneself and one’s possessions. This preoccupation of שבידו – that which specifically affects “oneself” – disqualifies a person from participating in communal action.

The point is that motive matters. It’s one thing to oppose nearly daily mass shootings by white domestic terrorists because you are afraid to get shot. It’s another to act because no one should get shot! No movement fully can succeed if each participant’s motive is mainly one’s own needs, spiritually or physically. 

Our relationship with G-d also must transcend limited self-interest. Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul (אלול), intensifying our personal introspection into our intimate and unique relationship with G-d. Elul’s name is famously understood as an acronym for the Hebrew verse in Song of Songs, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” What is less known is that it also refers to the sin of Judah’s son Onan, who marries Tamar after his older brother Er dies (Genesis 38:9). Judah instructs Onan to marry Tamar in order to establish a line of descent for his deceased brother. The verse explains that Onan knew that the child of this levirate marriage wouldn’t be considered his (“לא לו”), and therefore refused to have a child with her. 

Tradition responded to Onan’s fit of pique by leaving him out of our spiritual future.  Our rabbis teach that the Messiah will come from the union of Judah and Tamar along with Ruth and Boaz, both Levirate marriages that would produce children credited to others. Redemption comes from exactly this quality of selflessness.

That’s why a spiritually authentic אלול must also include the לא לו. Elul focuses us on  precisely what is beyond ourselves. True teshuvah requires restoration for all. We must love, protect and provide for asylum seekers, trans youth, and all suffering prejudice, discrimination or other indignities. Redemption and forgiveness only can come when we restore our love for each other the way we naturally love ourselves. 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.